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Murray, Indians May Be Worth 2nd Look

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page E06

In early May, during the Cleveland Indians' only trip this season to Baltimore, Indians hitting coach and Orioles legend Eddie Murray seemed resigned to the thought he would never get a big league managing job.

He was coming off a winter in which a potential opportunity to manage the Orioles -- he was widely viewed as the leading candidate entering the interview phase -- failed to materialize. The Orioles hired Lee Mazzilli instead and Murray was left embittered by the experience.

Cleveland hitting coach Eddie Murray, who was passed over for the Orioles' managerial job, finally has reason to smile as Indians hitters have turned it around after a slow start. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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At the same time, the Indians were foundering near last place in the American League Central, with their slew of young hitters struggling under Murray's watch.

Three months later, the Indians are hovering on the edges of the playoff race, those young hitters are producing eye-popping numbers and Murray may have revived his managerial hopes.

Look at all the career years taking place in the Indians' lineup. Ronnie Belliard, a career .266 hitter, is hitting .298 and last month earned his first all-star berth. Casey Blake (who is remembered in Baltimore for a bizarre week-long stint at the end of the 2001 season) is hitting .273 (20 points above his career average) with a career-high 18 homers.

Victor Martinez is hitting .301 with 17 homers in his first full season in the majors; he, too, was an all-star. And Travis Hafner has put together a monster season, with a .325 average (73 points above his career average) and 21 homers.

"It's a combination of factors," said Chris Antonetti, the Indians' assistant general manager. "It's the maturity of young hitters getting acclimated to the big leagues. And it's also the influence of Eddie Murray -- not only in regards to the fundamentals of hitting, but also what to look for as a hitter and how pitchers are trying to get you out. He provides some very perceptive insights into hitting.

"As a team, collectively, it's been a big step forward, and Eddie has been an integral part of it."

The Indians probably won't be playing in October -- they are six games behind Minnesota in the AL Central and five back in the wild-card chase, the blame for which falls mostly on a bullpen that has blown more saves than it has converted. But there is optimism in Cleveland for the first time in years.

As for Murray, he has been very careful in his public statements not to blast the Orioles, which may pay dividends should the team fires Mazzilli after this season, as has been widely speculated, if the team's play does not improve significantly.

And if that happens, one would expect Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a fervent Murray backer, to have more of a say in the next managerial choice than he did with Mazzilli, who was handpicked by the front office and taken to Angelos for approval.

The Right Choice

Carl Pavano's development into a front-line starting pitcher for the Florida Marlins -- he improved to 12-4 with a 3.21 ERA on Thursday night -- serves as belated vindication for Jim Beattie, the onetime Montreal Expos GM who was pilloried for years for trading away Pedro Martinez to the Boston Red Sox in 1997 for Pavano and Tony Armas Jr.

However, Beattie, now with the Orioles, refuses to gloat over Pavano's late-blooming excellence.

"When you trade for young pitching, you never know when they're going to break through," Beattie said of Pavano, who became a first-time all-star this year at age 28. "He had a lot of injuries through the years. He always had the stuff -- just like Tony Armas always had the stuff. They have to stay healthy, and [Pavano] just didn't."

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